The tales of origin vary. Some say it hails from the name of a biting insect in Malaysia, Polynesia, or some other pacific island. Others believe that it cursed the American occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. Still others believe it came out of the American trenches in Europe during the first World War. But one thing everyone could agree on was no matter where the term came from, Cooties were imaginary. For a while.
Born out of the combined ingredients of popular myth and individual imagination, Cootie began infesting toy store shelves in 1948. At that time, the parts and pieces were simply whittled from wood by their inventor, Herb Schaper. Schaper’s skill was so formidable that he hand-crafted upwards of forty thousand complete games before handing over the duty to the manufacturers. That’s some serious whittling skill. Despite most children’s intense aversion to the imaginary insect version, the wood and plastic toy/game has enjoyed sustained success from its debut to the present.
While some of the fun may just come from giving the toy to another child and wildly proclaiming “Now you have Cooties!” the toy was first and foremost a game that actually had an objective: Be the first one to build a complete critter and win. Simple enough that any preschooler could understand (which was good since the game was designed for and marketed toward that age group). Not only were children now playing with Cooties but they were also putting bugs together instead of pulling them apart! If Schaper were alive today, he’d have some explaining to do.
When one opened up a box of Cooties, what lay inside was a mess of bug parts in desperate need of sorting. This mess could ultimately concoct four large Cooties – brightly colored insects made up of a segmented body, a large head, a curly proboscis, two sloping antennae, two beady eyes, and of course, six spindly legs. The trick to constructing a Cootie was to roll the requisite dice number that corresponded to each specific feature. For example, to gain a body (the part that all Cootie builders were required to start with), you needed to roll a one. Two would get you a head, three for the antennas, four meant the eyes, five for the proboscis (the mouth for you non-science types), and, of course, each of the six legs required their own roll of a six. Habitually low-rollers often came away from a game of Cootie with something that was more akin to a caterpillar than a cootie.
Cootie belongs to a family of games originally made by Schaper that include Ants in the Pants, Don’t Spill the Beans and Don’t Break the Ice. The clear cut favorite is Cootie, with over fifty-million games sold. Briefly sold by Tyco in the 70s, the game is now produced by the Milton Bradley division of Hasbro, and our bug friends are now equipped with additional accessories including sneakers and inline skates.
It may have lacked a little in the strategy department, but the game never lacked for fun, and is fondly remembered by any kid who ever had the honor of piecing together their very own bug. If you are one of those kids from yesteryear who loved to play Cootie, we hope you’ll share your stories and recollections with us in our comments section, as we tip our hat to this iconic insect game.